Let's hear it for audiobooks

Audiobooks are like literary festivals on tape - but listen intently for 'not for kids' content

Bacteria, swarming like invisible cotton wool, had stopped up my nine-year-old son's ears. Hard of hearing from his ear infection, Julian lay prone in bed, trying desperately to listen to the prim British voice saying something in the distance.

It was an audiobook, written and read by British comedian David Walliams, playing on our ancient CD player that he was trying to make out. Blocked ears notwithstanding, Julian was glued to the children's novel about a "Gangsta Granny" going on a jewel heist with her grandson - his bedtime listening for several days in a row. Sympathetically, I dialled the volume up a few notches. And Walliams' proper English accent boomed through our flat.

Audiobooks, in other words, are the new black in our household.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

A compulsive hoarder of silverfish-breeding paperbacks, I am now a convert.

Part of this conversion is pragmatism.

Given their ample distractions - from iPads to Pokemon cards, to football and cricket - I'm increasingly fighting an uphill battle to get my two sons (Lucien, the younger, is six) to sit down and read. Whenever they come to me complaining of boredom, I order them to crack open a book.

This instruction is, invariably, met with groans. They would retreat to a corner and sulk, rather than comply.

It didn't use to be this way.

As a toddler, Julian would wake me every morning by hitting me on the head with a board book, shoving it into my hands and demanding that I read it.

To the exhausted parent, the audiobook can be a godsend. Instead of reading  the same book over  and over again,  one could simply activate the "repeat" function on the  player and take  a snooze next  to Junior, if he were  wide awake and bushy-tailed at 3am.

I memorised his favourite book, The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister, and could recite it in its entirety with my eyes closed - literally.

But audiobooks proved a novelty to the boys. Everything about the experience was so quaintly low-tech, yet new to them: Peeling the shiny discs from their plastic cases; feeding them into the almost obsolete CD slot of the car stereo or pressing down the lid of our "mini-compo" (remember those?); the satisfactory grind, whir and hum of little machine parts as the disc started to spin. A snatch of music, the blinking track index, and a voice announcing brightly: "Chapter one." All that thrilled my 21st-century kids.

Audiobooks seemed to be, to me at first, "reading lite".

You close your eyes and let someone else do the heavy lifting of focusing on and speaking the words on a page. Like a surfer, you can let the audiobook paddle you out into a sea of words, before the juicy bits catch you, and you - ears pricked, balancing, concentrating - crest home on a wave.

Gradually, however, it dawned on me that audiobooks were a totally different sort of creature. They were like literary festivals on tape.

I checked out H Is For Hawk, Helen Macdonald's wonderful 2014 memoir of finding comfort in falconry after her father's death, from the National Library, and was delighted to discover that it was read by the author, in her serene, Cambridge scholar tones. It made clear certain things about her narrative (falconry and class, for instance) and gave it another layer I would have completely missed had I merely "interfaced" with it in print. Every pause, every sound effect was perfect. "She knows her own lines," quipped a friend when I mentioned this.

American librarian Paula Willey wrote in The Baltimore Sun: "A talented narrator can accurately reproduce accents, slang, and bits of other languages. This gives kids a taste of a culture that is not their own or a chance to hear people who sound like people they know."

She also cited research showing that children who listen to audiobooks regularly have "improved comprehension, greater reading speed and accuracy, better vocabulary and pronunciation, and increased motivation".

Indeed, listening to a book requires a different sort of concentration. A book unfurls according to the natural speed and rhythm of one's eye. But an audiobook rolls on, relentlessly, unless you scramble to hit the "pause" or "stop" button.

Daydream a little, and the story has chugged past your station, leaving you stretching out a forlorn arm on the dusty platform. This trait of audiobooks, while frustrating to me at first, became a zen exercise: I learnt to let the lines I missed go; to not obsess about what I failed to grasp, but appreciate the moments I caught.

To the exhausted parent, the audiobook can be a godsend.

Instead of reading the same book over and over again, one could simply activate the "repeat" function on the player and take a snooze next to Junior, if he were wide awake and bushy-tailed at 3am.

(That said, I waited until recently to introduce audiobooks to my kids because I still believe that nothing can replace the stimulating bond that comes from a small, pre-verbal child watching one's parent contort his or her lips while forming strange sounds.)

Sales of audiobooks have increased by up to 19.5 per cent in the United States from 2013, according to an annual survey by the Audiobook Publishers Association earlier this year. Retail sales totalled more than US$1.47 billion (S$2.1 billion) last year.

In Britain, sales of audiobooks have doubled in the last five years to £10 million (S$21.5 million), according to an April report in The Telegraph.

Sometimes, audiobooks can come with mines.

Last week, I popped B.J. Novak's New York Times-bestselling One More Thing: Stories And Other Stories into the CD player while I was driving the kids around. Novak is an American comic and actor, best known for being writer, executive producer and co-star in the US version of the television show The Office. In pictures, he looks really nice and nerdy, with brown hair and blue eyes. Nothing about his appearance suggests a bad boy.

The first story in the book was a seemingly innocuous retelling of the race between the hare and the tortoise. The kids listened, rapt, to the fable-like story, while I motored on.

Then came this line: "Never… has anyone ever kicked anyone's a** by the order of magnitude that the hare kicked the a** of that ******* ******* tortoise that afternoon."

I jammed on the brakes.

"WOAH, WOAH, WOAH," I said, at the same moment my husband demanded: "WHAT KIND OF BOOK IS THIS?"

Then, in unison, we told the children to never repeat those words. Ever.

At the end of the day, print books can be more easily vetted: Just flip through to catch anything unsuitable for the young.

But audiobooks keep you on your toes, take you by the ear lobes - in more ways than one.

•Clara Chow is a freelance writer and co-editor of literary journal WeAreAWebsite.com

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2015, with the headline 'Let's hear it for audiobooks'. Print Edition | Subscribe